North Korea today launched scores of artillery shells that killed two and injured nearly 20 more on a South Korean island, leading Seoul to return fire and place its military on "crisis status," the New York Times reported (see GSN, Nov. 22).
North Korean rounds began hitting Yeonpyeong Island at 2:34 p.m. Korea time, not far from the two nations' contested sea border, according to South Korean Defense Ministry official Kiyheon Kwon. He said the North also fired multiple shells into the Yellow Sea.
The artillery exchange follows on the heels of the weekend revelation that North Korea had covertly established a large-scale advanced uranium enrichment plant. The United States and its allies have rejected Pyongyang's claims the facility was built to produce fuel for a new light-water nuclear reactor, suggesting instead the enriched uranium was probably intended for the Stalinist state's nuclear weapons program.
State-controlled North Korean media today claimed the artillery incident was sparked when South Korea "recklessly fired into our sea area."
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened a meeting today of his security advisers, his office said.
"We will not in any way tolerate this," South Korean presidential spokesman Hong Sang-pyo said following the crisis meeting. "Any further provocation will get an immediate and strong response and the South Korean military will strongly retaliate if there is anything further."
The Obama administration harshly criticized the North's actions today, urging the aspiring nuclear power "to halt its belligerent action," according to a White House statement.
China said it was "concerned" and urged all parties involved to return to long-paralyzed six-nation talks aimed at North Korean denuclearization.
"We hope the relevant ... parties will do more to contribute to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said to reporters.
As the top benefactor to the impoverished and isolated North, China is believed to hold the most influence over the regime. Beijing has repeatedly called on Japan, South Korea and the United States to return to nuclear talks with the North, but the three allies have resisted doing so until Pyongyang demonstrates a "sincere" commitment to nuclear disarmament.
Chinese officials appeared to be taken aback by North Korea's attack. "The situation needs to be verified," Hong said, stating that "China is willing to stay close communication with the relevant parties concerning the Korean nuclear issue" (Mark McDonald, New York Times, Nov. 23).
U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth met with Chinese officials today in Beijing, where both sides called for calm on the Korean Peninsula, Agence France-Presse reported.
"It (the shelling) of course came up in my conversation with the Chinese and we both share the view that such conflict is very undesirable and expressed firmly the desire that restraint be exercised," the U.S. diplomat said to reporters. "We agree on that" (Agence France-Presse I/Google News, Nov. 23).
An emergency session of the U.N. Security Council could be convened soon to address the shelling of the inhabited South Korean island, a French diplomatic insider said.
"[An emergency meeting is] in the works for either today or tomorrow," the source said in a Reuters report. "We are for it and (planning) is ongoing" (Reuters I/Yahoo!News, Nov. 23).
Yeonpyeong Island is located two miles from the contested Northern Limit Line. Roughly 1,000 South Korean marines are stationed on the island and South Korean maritime forces are also active in the area, the Times reported. Two marines were believed to be killed and a number of others wounded in the shelling.
Korea Institute for National Unification analyst Choi Jin-wook saw the North Korean strike as a "deliberate" action that is a "sign of North Korea’s increasing frustration."
"Washington has turned a deaf ear to Pyongyang and North Korea is saying, "Look here. We’re still alive. We can cause trouble. You can’t ignore us," Choi said.
Pyongyang is angry with the Obama White House for refusing to lift punitive sanctions aimed at curbing the North's nuclear and missile activities. Heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions were imposed on the North in June 2009 after it conducted its second nuclear test.
"They see that they can’t pressure Washington so they’ve taken South Korea hostage again," Choi said (Mark McDonald, New York Times).
North Korea's supreme military command warned today it would continue to carry out assaults should South Korea cross the contested maritime boundary "even 0.001 millimeter," the Associated Press reported (Kwang-Tae Kim, Associated Press I/Time, Nov. 23).
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned of a serious danger if the shelling did not immediately cease, Reuters reported.
"It is necessary to immediately end all strikes. There is a colossal danger which must be avoided. Tensions in the region are growing," Lavrov said to journalists (Andrei Makhovsky, Reuters II, Nov. 23).
The Obama administration wants China to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons work. Bosworth was meeting with Chinese officials today to discuss Pyongang's newly unveiled uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, Reuters reported.
"We regard this development with great seriousness," Bosworth said in Tokyo before he left for China. He was in South Korea for talks yesterday.
"We believe that the North Koreans are in violation of a substantial number of international agreements that they have entered into and are in violation of U.N. Council resolutions," Bosworth stated (Michael Martina, Reuters III, Nov. 23).
"Clearly we do not contemplate resuming [nuclear] negotiations while active programs are under way or while there is a possibility that North Koreans will test another nuclear device or test a missile," he said.
Bosworth said Washington was "reaching out to consult with Russia" on the nuclear impasse, Agence France-Presse reported. "We are consulting with our partners in the six-party process," he said (Agence France-Presse II/Yahoo!News, Nov. 23).
North Korea indicated last week it was prepared to send every one of its nuclear fuel rods -- used to process plutonium to bomb-grade level -- to a third party nation if Washington would reaffirm that it possessed "no hostile intent" against the Kim Jong Il regime, the Washington Post reported today.
"They always float their offers on a sea of threats," Northeast Asia expert Leon Sigal, one of the U.S. experts who received the message while visiting the North, said in relating the offer. "But this time they were unusually explicit."
In addition to revealing their new uranium enrichment facility, regime officials also indicated to their U.S. guests that missile tests would be continued and a third nuclear test carried out should Washington refuse to restart talks with their government.
The coordinated revelation of new nuclear details, threats and the offer of a nuclear drawdown fit Pyongyang's pattern of negotiating tactics in which it attempts to simultaneously pressure and cajole the international community into granting concessions.
Should North Korea give up several thousand spent fuel rods -- effectively closing off one path to producing fissile material for weapons -- Pyongyang would want South Korea to aid its efforts to generate electricity, Sigal said he was told by regime officials.
Regime officials are also open to talks on their uranium enrichment work, Sigal said. "They clearly expressed a willingness to stop the program and reverse course."
A high-ranking Obama official said Washington was not enthusiastic about the proposal in light of the news about North Korea's uranium enrichment progress.
"Their plutonium program would appear not to be their sole vehicle [for fissile material production] at the moment, so the offer, if there were an offer, concerning facilities nearing the end of their useful life is not sufficient," the anonymous official said.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said yesterday the Obama administration would not reward North Korea's "bad behavior."
"This obviously is an issue of concern, not a crisis," Crowley said. "We are going to consult with our partners and coordinate a unified response to North Korea's actions" (John Pomfret, Washington Post, Nov. 22).
Some are criticizing the White House's North Korea strategy, contending the administration gives the issue insufficient diplomatic attention, AP reported.
"Like his predecessors, President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that the only thing worse than negotiating with North Korea is not negotiating with North Korea," Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said.
The uranium facility revelations necessitate that Beijing and Washington "directly re-engage North Korea in talks aimed at containing and verifiably freezing the North's bomb program," Kimball said.
In Seoul yesterday, Bosworth stood by Obama policy on the North: "I would not at all accept that our policy toward North Korea is a failure. ... They are a difficult interlocutor but we're not throwing our policy away."
Seoul-based political scientist Lee Chul-ki said Pyongyang was unhappy the Obama White House had adopted a hawkish approach akin to the Bush administration's position.
Some North Korea experts believe Pyongyang is ultimately seeking Washington's acknowledgment of the North as a nuclear power (Foster Klug, Associated Press II/Google News, Nov. 23).
Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, one of the U.S. specialists to see the uranium enrichment plant, today cautioned against overstating the nuclear danger posed by Pyongyang, Reuters reported.
"Take [the] threat seriously, but don't hype it," he said during an event in Washington, asserting that a more logical path for the North to produce additional nuclear-weapon material would be through its plutonium program rather than uranium enrichment.
The regime is believed to have roughly enough plutonium for six weapons (Reuters IV, Nov. 23).